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Course Bridges Culture Gap for Ag Workers

By Jenny Bjelland
UW-RF News Bureau

FEB. 11, 2005--Eleven UW-River Falls agricultural students were immersed in Mexican culture during January term through a new human resource management course, "Student Puentes," which means "student bridges" in English.

The students' experiences during the 16-day trip were designed to help build bridges between the ag students, as future Midwestern agricultural business leaders, and the Mexican agricultural workforce.

According to Dennis Cooper, UW-RF dairy science professor and course instructor, students will gain lasting benefits from the course that will translate to a positive effect in the workforce. "Traveling to Mexico, learning some Spanish, and becoming more acquainted with the culture and the actual towns where these workers come from will help [the students] to relate to these workers better and in a more constructive, positive way," said Cooper.

The new course was modeled after a similar program for dairy farmers started in Alma, Wis. The program was designed by dairy farmer and UW-RF alumnus John Rosenow (B.S. '72), along with Shaun Duvall, a former Spanish teacher from the Alma Area Schools, and Carl Duley, the Buffalo County University of Wisconsin-Extension agriculture agent. They wanted to help area employers better understand the language, culture and lives of their Latino employees.

Rosenow, Duvall and Duley worked along with Cooper and Gregg Hadley, a UW-RF professor of agriculture economics, to organize the student version of the program. Rosenow, Cooper and Duvall accompanied the students on the study tour to Mexico.

The 16-day trip was filled with many new cultural experiences for students. Weekdays were spent in a series of Spanish language training and human resource management classes. Each day included four hours of intense Spanish language instruction from the Cemanahuac Education Community, a school that strives to teach the Spanish language and Latin-American culture to students of all ages, levels and professions.

Nathan Wilber, a junior agriculture business major from Trempeleau, Wis., described the Spanish classes as "overwhelming and shocking," because from the moment they stepped into the classroom and until they left each day they were not allowed to speak any English.

Students learned how to successfully manage employees through good communication, motivation and discipline skills. They analyzed the decreasing U.S. labor supply trends that have led to an increased hiring of immigrants. The course also taught students practices associated with hiring Latin Americans, dealing with cultural issues and making ethical decisions.

The Cemanahuac Education Community also arranged to experience Mexican family stays during the week. One, two or three students lived with the family, who provided the students with authentic Mexican meals in a real family setting. It also allowed students the chance to participate in evening lessons in basket-making, belt-making, Mexican cooking, horseback riding and dance lessons.

Weekends were dedicated to traveling, sightseeing and other forms of cultural familiarization. Students spent a day at Teotihuacan, the "City of the Gods" and home to the third largest pyramid in the world. The group also observed Mexico's dairy industry by visiting a large 150-cow Brown Swiss dairy farm with a milking parlor and a small 20-cow farm where the animals are still milked by hand.

The highlight of the study tour for many students was a trip high up into the mountains to visit indigenous communities and families of Rosenow's workers.

Jessica Fraust, a junior animal science major from Ettrick, Wis. describes the emotions of the experience. "At these villages, we were welcomed by friends and family members of John's [Rosenow] workers. They fed us like royalty and were so welcoming and caring toward us. You could see the respect and appreciation that they had for John and everything he has done for their families. At some of the places there were tears shed along with the laughs, and we were always invited to tour the communities."

The experience was a cultural awakening for students. "It was really eye opening to learn about the reality in Mexico, which is why immigrants come to work here," said senior Stephanie Jicinsky, a animal science major from Baraboo, Wis. "They don't come because they want to, but because the Mexican culture values family so much, and working in the U.S. is one way for fathers and husbands to give their families a better life. It means so much that they are willing to go months or years without seeing their loved ones."

The course left the students, who aspire to be future agriculture business leaders, with both a technical knowledge of the Latino labor force and a personal look into the culture, families and lifestyles of rural Mexico.

"We were totally immersed in the culture," said Fraust. "That accelerated our learning process as well as opened our eyes to management skills that are necessary for different cultures and the importance of an employer to understand every individual."

UW-RF students from Minnesota and Wisconsin who participated in the Student Puentes course included:
Allenton - Karen Wolf, dairy science, junior
Aniwa - Connie Walters, dairy science, junior
Baraboo - Stephanie Jicinsky, animal science, senior
Burlington - Danielle Wilson, dairy science, junior
Colby - Tara Pescinski, agricultural business, senior
Deer Park - Anne Frank, dairy science, senior
Ettrick - Jessica Fraust, animal science, junior
Prairie du Sac - Jon Lundgren, dairy science, junior
Trempeleau - Nathan Wilber, agricultural business, junior
Wausau - Miranda Bauer, animal science, junior
Owatonna, Minn. - Brandon Balzer, dairy science, junior


Last updated: Tuesday, 22-Jun-2010 16:21:19 Central Daylight Time

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